WELA Program 2021: Reflections

WELA 2021 cohort and staff

Pictured: the 2021 WELA Program cohort with WELA staff and guest speaker Dr Joan Staples at Commonground, Victoria.

Women's Environmental Leadership Australia (WELA)'s National Leadership Development Program is a nine-month program that is made available to 20 women across Australia each year. Thanks to the encouragement and support of Liz Murphy-Forrester (a WELA Alumni working for QCC), I applied to join the 2021 program, and was thrilled to be accepted. 

The program involves intensive leadership development with tailored mentoring, combining online sessions with in-person retreats, with the aim to "develop skills, knowledge and networks to address your real-life challenges and transform your leadership". 

The program kicked off in early May 2021, just a week after I took the position of NQCC Coordinator - talk about impeccable timing! I realised that I needed the "skills, knowledge and networks" that WELA could provide more than ever. 

Over fortnightly Zoom sessions, I got to know the rest of my cohort - a wonderful and vibrant group of women of all ages and backgrounds, and from all over the country. Together, we explored topics such as feminism, relational leadership, diversity in the environment movement, personal resilience, imposter syndrome, decolonisation and much more. The content was made much more valuable with the input and reflections of women from my cohort, the WELA facilitators and inspiring guest speakers. 

To help deepen our relationships within the cohort, we were each put into small "homegroups", with whom we could chat in breakout rooms after each intensive session. I grew to look forward to this time with my homegroup buddies, and our relationship blossomed as we learned more about each other, providing comfort and support as we shared our professional and personal challenges. Following one of our online intensives, we decided that these were too far apart for our liking and scheduled our own fortnightly Zoom catch ups! 

Homegroup friends

An excited homegroup selfie to mark our first face-to-face meeting.

We were also encouraged to choose a suitable mentor towards the beginning of the program, and I was faced with an obvious choice. Lucy Graham, Director of CAFNEC, graciously took up my request and, over monthly Zoom sessions, shared her experiences and insights as I grappled with the challenges of my new role. Just knowing that someone else had experienced struggles like mine and was achieving great things regardless was enough to add wind in my sails and set me in the right direction.  

While I looked forward to meeting my cohort face-to-face at our two planned retreats for the year, Covid had other plans. With border closures and travel restrictions, our first retreat was replaced with an online five-day intensive. As the year progressed, our retreat planned for October also became increasingly less likely to occur as planned. At each stage in the decision-making process, my cohort was heavily consulted and our input was always valued. Desperate to meet face-to-face, the group decision was made to hold over the retreat until March 2022. 

You can imagine our collective excitement when we finally met in person in March! The Monday of that long-anticipated week saw us come together at the beautiful Commonground in regional Victoria. RATs were taken (all negative results), hugs were shared and then shoes were removed as we participated in a beautiful Smoking Ceremony and Acknowledgement of Country by Aunty Gabby Gamble. 

In a beautiful place rich with history, and in the company of exceptional women, we were filled with a huge sense of gratitude - just to be together after so long felt somehow magical. 

A photographer captured a group photo, and I was stoked to be in a photo where I was somewhere near median height for once! I was a little less stoked when I realised I hadn't removed my name tag for the photo. *eyeroll*

Tuesday saw the program progress, and we packed a lot into the day! The evening rounded out with a screening of "Utopia Girls", which provided a powerful reminder of the battles women have long fought, the powers that have always worked against women, and the ongoing injustices faced by women of colour.

Wednesday morning brought with it three positive RATs, and with that, every one of us was affected. As "close contacts", we were all required to stay in place or isolate elsewhere for seven days. For many, this was a deeply anxious time - particularly for those with dependents and other urgent responsibilities waiting for them. Most Victorians opted to get home (or stay with family) to isolate, to prevent the risk of new positive cases pushing seven days even further out. By Wednesday night our cohort had halved and by lunchtime Thursday only a handful of us remained at Commonground. Throughout this time, the WELA team truly "walked the talk", demonstrating relational leadership in a time of uncertainty and stress. They were (and should be) highly commended on their handling of such a dynamic situation. 

Delivery of the program continued as best as it could (though no guest speakers travelled to Commonground), with those in isolation joining sessions on Zoom where possible. We stayed connected through Slack messages, sharing photos, program notes and words of support. Zohara had written and performed a song for the cohort and we sang this together again around the ukulele and shared videos with those who had left. 

Presenting to the group

From Wednesday, delivery of the program took place outside, with social distancing and face masks. 

I was incredibly fortunate to stay at Commonground until the official end of the program on Friday, before I left for Ballarat to isolate with my sister. The weeks following the retreat have seen our cohort continue to interact via Slack and personal messages. The program content has provided me with tools, resources and new perspectives, but WELA has also given me the opportunity to build relationships with some incredible women from the environment movement who have enriched my life and my work and will continue to do so (I strongly believe) for many years to come. 

You can learn more about WELA on their website. There are numerous ways to engage with them and I highly recommend you tap into their resources and/or network in one way or another - you won't regret it!

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  • Crystal Falknau